The State of the Market: a Laptop Buying Guide
Although installing Linux on desktop PCs with standard hardware has become a snap, the same cannot be said as confidently for laptops. Getting all of a laptop's functionality to work on your own generally requires an investment of time and effort, which may not yield dividends in the end. If you need a Linux laptop that lets you open the box and get to work, we recommend the purchase of a preloaded machine from one of the many excellent vendors in today's marketplace.
When you begin your search for the perfect preloaded Linux laptop, you'll quickly learn the hard truth that we in the faithful Linux nation have fewer cutting-edge laptops than our Windows-running counterparts. Nevertheless, there is much to celebrate as life gradually becomes more fair for us. Innovation and new options are plentiful among both our old standby Linux hardware vendors and new, larger providers, such as Lenovo and Dell. Although we Linuxers most likely can't make every laptop out there run Linux, we have a wide selection from every category, with more variety arriving every day.
In addition to commending the ongoing efforts of the Linux hardware specialists, we warmly welcome Dell and Lenovo to the club of Linux laptop providers, happy the big vendors finally see the light. Unfortunately, both companies have started small and conservatively at one laptop apiece, each with fewer features than the exact same model with Windows Vista preloaded. Regardless, we wish these firms success and encourage them to let buyers purchase every PC they sell with Linux preloaded. We also hope this new competition will spur longtime Linux vendors to push themselves to offer even more variety and options at lower prices.
If you venture into the vast on-line PC marketplace, you'll find nearly a dozen US and Canadian firms (many more elsewhere, of course) peddling a wide range of laptop computers with Linux preloaded. Most of these firms are Linux specialists that load Linux onto and configure a third-party machine. In these firms' on-line stores, you'll have absolutely no problem finding a great selection of powerful, practical, business-oriented laptops with a 14.1", 15.4" or 17" display, a robust Core 2 Duo processor, buckets of RAM and a mammoth hard drive that cost less than $2,000. Almost without exception, you can configure your laptop as either a Linux-only or a dual-boot machine, with some vendors offering only Windows XP and others offering a choice between Windows XP or Vista. Unfortunately, the generalists, Lenovo and Dell, have decided to forgo the dual-boot option for now, which we predict will reduce their sales—we Linux folks demand a high degree of choice and control.
Specialty machines are harder to find in the Linux space, as are functioning specialty features on many of the available machines. Regarding specialty machines running Linux, if you want a screaming gaming machine, a media center or an ultraportable, your options are much more limited. In addition, when you're buying one of the available Linux machines, be a wary buyer because oftentimes a laptop will ship with, for example, a built-in Webcam, fingerprint scanner, cellular broadband capability or 802.11n Wi-Fi, but the vendor hasn't gotten it to work yet under Linux.
Despite the above complaints, you can find a limited number of interesting specialty laptops if you know where to look. One company to watch is Taiwan's ASUS, manufacturer of the most common laptops onto which the Linux specialists (such as R Cubed, LinuxCertified and HPC Systems) choose to preload Linux. The must-have device at the close of 2007 is the new ASUS Eee PC, a brand-new two-pound ultraportable with a 7" display that will sell for $259 and up. See below for more details.
If you have a quirky laptop need, perhaps the best place to look is at EmperorLinux, a company specializing in Linux-based laptops from a number of manufacturers, including Dell, Lenovo, Panasonic and Sony. Not only does EmperorLinux attempt to cover nearly every niche, including ultraportable, rugged, tablet and desktop replacements, but it also does the best job of making advanced features, such as GPS, cellular broadband, tablets and 802.11n Wi-Fi, work out of the box. See below for reviews of two laptops from EmperorLinux.
It also is heartening to know we have more options for protecting the environment when choosing a Linux laptop, as many of them are Energy Star-compliant. This means the device meets or exceeds criteria from the Environmental Protection Agency for energy consumption. Among other things, Energy Star-compliant notebooks must consume no more than 1W of power when off, 1.7W when hibernating and 22W when idle.
So that's the big picture; now, let's find a laptop that meets your needs. To give you a sense of what preloaded Linux laptops are available, we've created this laptop buyer's guide. We asked all the vendors we could find to send us their two most compelling machines for review. Although not every company took part, the ones below did. This guide is not intended to be exhaustive but rather a taste test of some currently available preloaded Linux laptops.
Below are mini reviews of seven different preloaded Linux laptops (eight if you include the ASUS Z84J sent by two different vendors) that you can buy today. The primary emphasis of these reviews is on the overall Linux experience and functionality, which surprisingly varies greatly among vendors. The secondary emphasis is on the feature sets. All machines, unless otherwise noted, came with integrated 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which are standard features nowadays.
James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal
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